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NT Aboriginal justice agency says keeping Don Dale open means continuing harm to young people

Dechlan Brennan -

The Northern Territory's leading Aboriginal justice agency has renewed calls for the notorious Don Dale youth detention facility in Darwin to be closed after a riot at the youth prison saw children and young people climb onto the roof and a building set alight.

The riot, which began on Wednesday, saw 14 children on the roof of the facility, who allegedly threw projectiles at staff and police. By Thursday morning, six children remained on the roof but were all removed by 9am.

It was reported the NT's Territory Response Group, currently under ICAC investigation for a series of racist "awards", had been sent to manage the riot.

On Thursday, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) renewed their calls for Don Dale to be closed and for the NT Government to investigate alternative accommodation options for the children currently detained there - approximately half of whom are on remand.

Principal Legal Officer Jared Sharp said the riot was a direct result of the "appalling" conditions at Don Dale which has "repeatedly" failed to accommodate the needs of vulnerable children.

"On any given night, there are approximately 40 - mostly Aboriginal young people – detained inside Don Dale with little access to the support they need to address the complex array of factors that have contributed to them being there in the first place," Mr Sharp said.

"Further, reports of the excessive use of lockdowns as a means to manage staffing shortages have only intensified our concerns about the incredible harm that is being done."

The prison has been heavily criticised since graphic footage was shown on ABC TV in 2016 of detainees being tear-gassed.

The resulting 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children saw the NT government accept in full or in principle all 227 recommendations at an estimated cost of $229 million – including the closure of Don Dale. However, the facility still remains open.

Chief Minister Eva Lawler said she remains committed to closing the prison, but a new replacement facility - due to open in 2023 - has been delayed, with the government blaming building approvals, staffing and pandemic.

Mr Sharp said it was inconceivable the facility continued to operate despite the findings and pointed to the redevelopment of youth facilities in Mparntwe/Alice Springs as a template for an improved therapeutic and culturally sensitive youth justice model that could be implemented across the Territory.

He did stress, however, locking children in prisons wasn't the solution, with policy reform urgently needed to prevent children being unnecessarily detained.

"The tightening of the youth bail laws in 2021 led to a surge in youth detention numbers which stressed the system beyond capacity and has undoubtedly contributed to deteriorating conditions for those being held in detention," Mr Sharp said.

"Locking young people up is costly and it's counterproductive, evidenced by the fact that more than half of all minors released from prison return within a year."

The NT spends more on youth detention than any other jurisdiction in Australia, funds Mr Sharp said should be diverted towards restorative measures, including drug and alcohol counselling, behaviour change programs, adequate healthcare, stable housing, education, training, and employment.

"The only way forward is for the government to publicly announce immediate and active steps to close Don Dale and roll out an alternative youth justice model that will better support vulnerable young people and deliver on our shared goal of making our communities safer," he said.

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